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KABUL, Afghanistan – Civilians in the Afghan capital live in constant fear of being killed in a targeted attack as war with the Taliban and other extremist groups drags on. But another war is waged at night – against criminals and packs of stray dogs that roam the streets.
The shopkeepers in a district of Kabul speak of a shadow government.
“There are dogs and armed thieves who are making people’s lives hell,” said Fahim Sultani, a local elder who works in the empty, dusty hull of the rundown Aryub Cinema in northwestern town, which he is converting into a movie theater has a makeshift office.
When the Afghan economy was hit by the coronavirus, crime flourished in Kabul. Shortly after last year’s lockdown, the dogs on Mr. Sultani’s street and a handful of security guards watched what has become an integral part of the city: an ice cream vendor in front of the theater was shot at and robbed, he said.
The stray dogs roam the city and are a strange and sad facility in Kabul known for snapping, growling, and attacking people passing by, especially those who are just trying to make a living. During the day the animals rest and save their energy until dusk when they rule the streets together with the criminals.
Almost every city in the world deals with street crime, some with dog packs. Few, if any, have to deal with these threats while facing daily bombings, targeted assassinations and 40 years of relentless war.
Certain streets and intersections almost demarcate the territory of thieves and dogs, where groups of a dozen or so strays, led by a pack leader, are easily recognized by the residents as they roam between the shadows and the pitch-black strip of streets where the people are not trust.
Most dogs look like a cross between a shepherd and a labrador and are small compared to the huge dogs that are often used for fighting in the country. The strays live among piles of rubbish at the end of alleyways near restaurants where they can forage for food.
Despite repeated efforts by the township to kill them – and the presence of several animal shelters, Afghan pet owners, and empathetic dog-friendly foreigners eager to adopt – the animals thrive on the streets.
Mr. Sultani estimated that around 10 people were bitten in his neighborhood in the past year. They were mostly vendors tied to their mobile food stalls and nowhere near fast enough to escape the strays.
Rabies vaccinations are particularly common in Kabul and use part of the budget of the Afghan Ministry of Health. According to Masouma Jafari, a spokeswoman for the ministry, around $ 200,000 is spent annually on vaccines across the country.
Sultani, 43, is a neighborhood official responsible for about 4,000 families in northwest Kabul who forward their claims to the city government. But he has a soft spot for the dogs in the neighborhood and takes care of several who are lounging in the theater parking lot.
He protects the animals during the day and often leaves the theater door open so that they can avoid the stoning in the morning and in the afternoon from school children passing by.
Mr. Sultani also had an estimate for people robbed in the neighborhood last year – about 20 people, he guessed. One of them was his brother Sayed Ahmad Shah, who was robbed two months ago just a few hundred meters from the theater. The parking dogs were there too and watched.
“If you wear anything after 7:00 am, they will attack you,” said Ahmad Shah, referring to both the thieves and the dogs.
Soaring crime rates, compounded by the three-month coronavirus lockdown last year that left many people unemployed, have continued to despair some of the destitute streets of Kabul as residents anticipate a security situation with little hope Offers improvement.
The residents are caught between two battles: the one in their neighborhood and the bloody conflict in their country.
Crime has increased steadily in Kabul since 2014. Around 8,000 criminal offenses were reported from March 2017 to March 2019, according to a report by the Afghan Analysts Network. The Home Office declined to provide crime data for the past year, but in early 2020 the surge in incidents prompted government officials to ban the use of motorcycles – the primary travel method for many criminals – despite the ruling barely being enforced.
The brunt of this lawlessness is borne by shopkeepers like Mohammed Ibraheem, whose small shop, which sells drinks and snacks less than a mile from the Aryub Theater, is shrouded in darkness after sunset. The few street lights and the steady glow of the nearby restaurant signs quickly fade as the road runs along a hill. At the top of the hill is a derelict 19th century palace.
Mr Ibraheem, 20, has been in his business for at least seven years. His tired voice sounds like it comes from someone three times his age.
Last year he had to cut his working hours, coming to work late morning and leaving early evening to try to avoid both the dogs and the thieves. There are fewer hours he can make a living now, he said as he stood near the cardboard boxes in his shop that were filled with chips and sodas.
“The government and the police are doing what they can,” Ibraheem said. “But they don’t have the ability to fight dogs, terrorists and thieves.”
Two shops down, 50-year-old Jawad, who like many Afghans only uses one name, said that he earned half of what he usually did in the past because he too had to cut his working days.
“It’s psychologically traumatic,” said Maryam Sultani, 19, a woman who lives off the theater but has no relationship with Mr. Sultani. She heard stories from her father when they showed films there decades ago.
“On one side there are the dogs who keep you from leaving the house and on the other side there are the thieves,” she said.
The animals are easy to identify, the criminals not so much.
Near the shopkeepers’ neighborhood, on a hill-cemetery-kite-flying arena, a group of friends have chosen to make peace with the pack of dogs that live between the tombstones. On a final day, a group of around half a dozen children – all local boys from the region between the ages of 9 and 14 – appointed their own certified dog whisperer. Sometimes the boys feed the dogs; other times they play with them. Most of the time they are just trying to coexist.
It’s a move rooted in the strategy they are counting on so that Four Eyes, Red, Big Feet, and Rex – as they call the dogs – don’t attack them at night. And maybe, just maybe, the dogs could defend them against one of the nefarious two-legged species that lurk in the dark.